Big distances plus small populations equal transportation predicaments for residents in many rural towns. A non-profit group in Twin Falls, Idaho, is working out a solution.
Crossing the long stretches of Idaho’s landscape has been an obstacle for some of the state’s disabled residents, but in Twin Falls a nonprofit found a way to make rural transportation work.
By aggressively seeking federal grant monies and dedicating a large share of staff time to implementing a voucher system, the Living Independence Network now offers transportation to more than 1000 local residents.
Here in the state’s south-central pocket along the Snake River, roads on the periphery of town unfurl into pale gold hills. They meander past feedlots and close to the canyon where two dramatic cascades of water gave the town its name in 1904. Beyond are small towns that might be called suburbs – Buhl, Jerome, Kimberly. Past them is “the rest of Idaho.” While Twin Falls’ population (34,000) may be small in comparison to other metro areas, this is one of the most densely populated spots in the state.
Employees of the Living Independence Network Corporation (LINC) of Twin Falls sought a way to give their clients the freedom to get “to and from.” In Twin Falls’ vast and sparsely populated landscape there were few transportation providers available, a double-barreled problem many rural places face. In this farming community, where the average household income is about $32,000 a year (Census 2000) many people with disabilities struggle to undertake the basic activities most people take for granted. While Medicaid pays for trips to the doctor, no other rides are covered. The seemingly mundane phrase “to and from,” distinguishes independence to live one’s life autonomously from being at the whim of charity.
In 1997, Advocacy Director Melva Heinrich and her colleagues at LINC’s Twin Falls office decided to pursue a transportation program to help their clients gain further independence. The mission of LINC, like all independent living groups, is to get people out of institutions and allow them to live in their own homes. This feat is nearly impossible in rural places like Twin Falls; they are too geographically large to reach local businesses without a car but too sparsely populated to have strong public transportation systems. A bus system serves Twin Falls and some of the surrounding towns, but it operates on limited hours and will deviate from its route for pickups only with 24 hours notice. Most of LINC’s clients struggled to afford either the bus or a private taxi before the new program was created in 1997, and neither of those options was available around the clock.
Back then, Heinrich looked to a fledgling transportation program at LINC’s Boise office, which supplemented clients’ transportation costs. The Boise program was phased out when the city got a more extensive bus system. But Heinrich realized that the idea could still work for Twin Falls, with its a more rural landscape and smaller population.
“At the time we started there was just one taxi provider in town,” Heinrich recalls. “Sometimes he was unavailable. Once he called and said he hadn’t been able to pay his liability insurance so we had to pause the program for three or four months until he was insured again.” In other words, transportation, says Heinrich, “ was pretty much at his discretion.”
When LINC began to help riders pay for transportation costs, the demand for services increased and the private sector responded. Heinrich applied for a grant under Section 5310, a federal transportation program for elderly persons and persons with disabilities, and received $20,000. Twin Falls’ LINC used this grant to supplement the cost of rides, using what looked like Monopoly money. Drivers would receive these stand-in papers from customers and then turn them into LINC for payouts.
Over the past 14 years, LINC’s requests have increased. This year, Heinrich plans for ask for $190,000 from the 5310 program, a figure she hopes will be enough to meet demand. Heinrich has already secured funding from the 5316 Job Access Reverse Commute program, which is given to low-income residents of rural areas to help them find and maintain employment, and the 5317 New Freedom Program, which provides transportation for those with disabilities.
But despite LINC’s expansion to meet local transportation needs, “If we were to start advertising this service, we’d be out of money in five months,” Heinrich said.
LINC provides two types of voucher cards to customers. A blue community access card provides free rides to those who work, attend school, or volunteer more than 16 hours each week. A white card allows seniors and disabled residents to get discounts on bus rides and participating taxi companies. Though customers still pay something for these rides, at $4 instead of $10, it’s relatively affordable. The rides extend as far out as Buhl, about 25 miles away from Twin Falls, and both the customer and LINC shoulder a higher cost. The taxi companies that partner with LINC do not make as much from driving these customers as they do from the general public, but drivers say that the lower fares are worthwhile because of the increased volume of clients: Now, LINC counts the program membership at about 1050, up from just a few dozen customers in the first year.
“We now have five taxi companies,” Heinrich said.
Because LINC has a limited amount of grant money, the number of rides each customer gets is also limited: about two trips each week to anywhere they wish. A blue community access card is available to those who work or volunteer more than 16 hours a week, and these rides are free.
While two rides a week may not seem like much, for people like Lavonne Kibbie, 82, the vouchers have made all the difference.
In November, Kibbie sat in the common area of the assisted living facility where she resides. She was getting over a cold and used a walker to get around after a recent fall. Kibbie stopped driving about 10 years ago, and while that decision marked a point of physical deterioration, she also takes pride in the fact that she acted responsibly by abdicating the wheel. Since then, Kibbie has used the vouchers to get where she needs to go.
At first, she recalled, when a single taxi company supplied rides, she was out of luck when the driver was busy. But the inability to get to the grocery store or to have her hair done was not the most difficult part of lacking a ride, she said. It was the feeling of being trapped.
“When that independence goes away you feel lost and neglected and useless because it’s not there at your command, to have a vehicle to get you where you want to go when you want to go,” Kibbie said. (Heinrich of LINC receives regular thank you cards from Kibbie, regardless of whether it’s a holiday.)
Now, Twin Falls has taxi companies that operate around the clock, and many of the cabs are wheelchair accessible.
Scott Oler, the owner of Twin Falls Taxi, says that 90 percent of his company’s business comes from Medicaid and LINC. When gas prices went up last year Oler didn’t raise rates.
“The community is already at a point where it’s financially strapped,” Oler said.
The cards have done wonders for a community that previously had few options for this crucial aspect of independent living. LINC has also used funding from the federal stimulus in 2010 to purchase a 16-passenger bus. The bus will be used both by the transportation department for daily commuter routes and for special outings, like Christmas-light sightseeing tours during the holidays and visits to Snake River Canyon.
Though the Twin Falls program has been a success, LINC employees say that they don’t expect to see many other non-profits starting similar programs, because only 10 percent of the grant money can go toward administrative costs, leaving the nonprofit to shoulder most of this burden. The 5310 money is for capital expenses, like the supplemented fares, so the LINC employees who work on the program receive their salaries from the profits LINC makes through its home health service, rather than from the grants.
With a measure of trepidation, LINC employee Sue Brown admitted that “transportation has taken over” the Twin Falls office, making it difficult for the staff to put time into other programs, like helping people access and learn to use assistive technology.
It’s a burden LINC might have been unwilling to take on, were it not for the personal stake many employees have in its outcome: they or their family members are disabled and benefit from the program. Heinrich remembers coming close to ending the transportation program in the early years, when she felt she was putting too many of LINC’s resources into a program that was not supporting the cost.
“Just when I’d think I’d had it and I didn’t want to deal with any of the good old boys in town anymore, I’d get a phone call of someone who would thank me and tell me that her group of twelve women could get together each month for a birthday party because the program helped them pay for their ride,” Heinrich said.
Despite the added pressure the program places on LINC, employees there wouldn’t think of giving it up. Transportation, they say, epitomizes the difference between dependency and self-sufficiency, giving their clients the independence their office seeks to provide. Though the program was difficult to start up, Heinrich hopes that she has helped pave the way for other nonprofits. She is developing a CD with information on how LINC created the program and how it works so that other independent living centers can benefit from the knowledge.
“Transportation is a huge issue,” said LINC’s Sue Brown. “If they don’t have it, they can’t meet their own needs.”